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You Go, Girls! Women Show the Write Stuff

Artwork for TIME by Richard Buckler


Plagued by chronic back pain and a litany of health-related complaints since childhood, Isabella Bird was advised by her physician to visit Australia to "take in the air." So in 1872, at 41 years of age, the frail but feisty Englishwoman ventured outside her homeland for the first time. She ended up spending six months down under, during which she not only restored her health but caught a travel bug. She wrote seven keenly observed and wickedly funny books about her physically challenging (and highly exhilarating) journeys in Asia, America and Africa, where she made her final jaunt--a horseback trek over the Atlas Mountains of Morocco--at the tender age of 72.

Bird's voyage of self-discovery inspired Annie Taylor, a missionary, to set off for Tibet in 1902, where she made a Christmas pudding at the top of a mountain and, when confronted by robbers, declared: "I am English and do not fear for my life." Two decades later, Alexandra David-Neel, a 44-year-old Frenchwoman, made history by walking (disguised as a beggar) from China across Tibet and into Lhasa, the first Western woman to enter the city. She went on to become a lama, speak fluent Tibetan and live until 101, working until the end on what would be her 25th book. Hemingway had nothing on these dames.

The spirit and words of such intrepid women continue to inspire others to embark on their own adventures. While many of their books may be out of print (like Bird's 1880 classic, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan), early female wayfarers in Asia also tended to be prodigious diarists and letter-writers. Excerpts from the writings of Bird and her peers are available in a slew of anthologies, like The Virago Book of Women Travellers or Parrot Pie for Breakfast, Jane Robinson's anthology of women pioneers to be published by Oxford University Press in September.

The writings of contemporary Birds like Dervla Murphy and Mary Morris offer a glimpse into the experiences of solo women travelers in Asia today. Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women's New Travel Writing and the award-winning Travelers' Tales: A Woman's World are two great places to catch up with modern women on the move. Also look for the third volume in Rough Guides' acclaimed Women Travel series later this year, featuring the work of experienced and maiden voyagers-turned-scribes.

Travelers' Tales also publishes a series of women's guidebooks, from safety precautions to tips for mothers traveling with kids. The California firm recently released its first book-length solo travelogue. Laurie Gough's Kite Strings of the Southern Cross is a lyrical account of the Canadian teacher's peregrinations in Fiji and throughout Southeast Asia. "I began writing because I feared my travels would evaporate," Gough says. "The best part has been hearing from readers that my book has encouraged them to travel." The journey continues.


April 26, 1999

Kitsch Report
Japan is going to the dogs--or at least, Japanese tourists are

Web Crawling
Brush up on Tibetan textiles and other regional art forms

Short Cuts
Japan Airlines is offering Japanese car buyers an offer they probably can't refuse

Take a break from Guangzhou's bar scene by going back to school--or next door to one

Main Feature
You go, girls! Women show the write stuff

Women only, please: have you ever traveled on your own?

ASIANOW Travel Home | TIME Asia home



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TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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